On April 4, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met for a trilateral summit in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The agenda of the meeting was the Syrian crisis – a problem that the three leaders have been trying to resolve since the end of 2016.
In Ankara, the leaders continued to discuss the issues that have already been touched upon by their foreign ministers in the Kazakh capital Astana two weeks ago. They summed up the results of the Astana talks and discussed the current military and humanitarian situation in Syria as well as the prospects for a political settlement to the conflict.
The future of de-escalation zones in Syria
The main item on the agenda of the three leaders was the future of de-escalation zones – an issue that became particularly important in the context of the events taking place in recent months in Eastern Ghouta.
Russia, Turkey and Iran had agreed to set up four de-escalation zones in Syria for an initial six-month period during the sixth round of talks in Astana in September last year. The four zones together included Eastern Ghouta and the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama.
As the validity of this arrangement formally expired in March this year, the three leaders needed to decide on the expediency of the continued existence of these de-escalation zones during their meeting on Wednesday.
So far, the creation of de facto de-escalation zones has been the main (if not the only) real result Iran, Turkey and Russia managed to get in Syria since the beginning of the Astana process over a year ago. But this mechanism already demonstrated its complete inefficiency in the first six months of its existence.
Inactivity was achieved in the south of Syria, as well as in the province of Homs, but the cessation of hostilities in these areas had started long before the agreement on the de-escalation zones. In the provinces of Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, however, the setting up of de-escalation zones did not lead to the cessation of hostilities.
Regardless of these facts on the ground, leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia clearly signalled that they are going to extend the initial six-month term of the de-escalation zones after Wednesday’s meeting. This decision showed that all three leaders evaluate the effectiveness of these zones primarily through the prism of their own interests, and not the interests of the Syrian people. From their point of view, de-escalation zones are first and foremost a mechanism for legitimising their presence in Syria and their participation in the Syrian conflict as guarantors of the ceasefire.
Since its beginning, the Astana process that led to the creation of these de-escalation zones had been shaped by the three countries’ desire to minimise their own costs in Syria. All three countries also utilised this process to develop basic ground rules that helped make their actions in Syria more predictable for each other.
So far Ankara has achieved an acceptable status quo in Idlib, and legitimised its military presence in the north of the country. Henceforward, any changes in Idlib are possible only within the framework of the on-going negotiations between Russia and Turkey. The Astana process was also highly beneficial for Tehran. Operating in alliance with Damascus, Iran visibly strengthened its presence in the country, moving from defence to offence, gradually taking control of large territories. Moscow is also satisfied with the Astana process so far, as it helped Russia claim the status of the “leading” force in the Syrian negotiation process.
Closing the de-escalation zones would have been an admission of the failure of the Astana process for all three leaders, and it would have called into question the legitimacy of their presence in the country. Moreover, such a decision would have undermined the foundations of the peace process the three countries have been trying to restart since the end of last year.
Transition to a political settlement
The transition to a political settlement to the conflict was another important topic that was discussed by the three leaders on Wednesday. In particular, they discussed setting up a constitutional committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution. Turkey, Iran and Russia had agreed to set up such a committee at a meeting in Russia two months ago.
This is not a problem easy to solve. To be successful, the constitution committee should receive the support of not only UN Special Envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura, but also of the Syrian regime and the opposition. And, given the unwillingness of Damascus to discuss constitutional reforms under the auspices of the United Nations, the likelihood of such a scenario is minimal.
The success of the constitution committee is also directly related to the functioning of de-escalation zones. The inability of Turkey, Iran and Russia to make the de-escalation zones work and achieve a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, calls into question the further participation of the opposition in the Astana negotiation process and without the approval of the Syrian opposition, the constitution committee cannot function.
Muhammad Allush, who represents one of the leading opposition forces in Syria, Jays al-Islam, has participated in Astana talks since the beginning, giving the process a level of legitimacy. However, the uninterrupted military operation in Eastern Ghouta, where the forces of this group are concentrated, can influence their participation in the next round of Astana talks scheduled for May 2018
Astana format reaching its natural limits
Established as a forum on military issues, Astana format has started to exhaust its potential at the end of last year, when military problems gradually began to go into the background and the need for political dialogue was renewed. In this regard, to achieve long-term success, Turkey, Iran and Russia need to find a way to transform the Astana process from a military forum into a political one.
However, this is not an easy transformation to achieve as the three countries are still far from reaching a compromise on the post-conflict future of Syria. The problem is not only in their different visions about the fate of Bashar al-Assad, but also in their incapability of taking substantial action to go beyond the limits of Astana itself.
Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani failed to find sustainable solutions to these core problems during their meeting in Ankara. Wednesday’s meeting once again showed that the parties still can not move closer to developing any mechanism for resolving the conflict. They still don’t seem to be capable of moving beyond fixing the current status quo.
In light of the uninspiring outcome of their latest meeting – and indeed the entire Astana process – it is impossible to classify the cooperation between Iran, Turkey and Russia in Syria as a new regional alliance. There is no real union between these three countries. What we are witnessing here is nothing more than a situational association that allows these three countries to take advantage of the current political momentum.